July 2012 
Year 18    No.167


Fashioning lies, veiling the truth


As the hijab issue heats up in France and Germany and the psychological pressure and the brainwashing of women intensifies all over the Muslim world, the feverish cry of "an attack on hijab is an assault on Islam" should be given a closer examination. Hijab, especially this modern form of the headgear that is causing controversy in Europe, is not, and should never be allowed to be, a valid symbol of Islam. Showing how irreligious it is to claim that it is an integral part of Islam best exposes the insidious misogynistic politics of worldwide "hijabisation".

Of course, the hijab is not mandated by the Koran nor is it sanctioned anywhere in the Hadith (the sayings of Prophet Muhammad). I would like to turn to the Koran and discuss some of its verses, focusing on their semiotic value and rhetorical tone, hoping thereby to prove why the hierarchical enforcement of hijab on women is not only not required by the Koran but insisting that it is so constitutes a grievously sinful lie according to the Koran.

There are three verses in the Koran that deal with the women’s dress issue. All of them use mild-toned language, understandably suitable for gentle suggestion or kindly advice. No amount of conflation of the language used in these verses can possibly be construed as the Koranic mandate of hijab. The word "hijab" itself means "curtain" and it occurs seven times in the Koran in a variety of nuances of meaning. Its most notable use in surah Maryam in the sense of a "screen" occurs in the context of Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus and the word metaphorically captures the moment of that miracle:

"Commemorate Mary in the Book. When she withdrew from her family she went to an eastern place. And she took a screen [a curtain, or a cover] from them, And we sent our spirit to her" (19:16-17).

References to seclusion and modest dressing of women are made in surah Ahzab (33: 32-33, 53) but they are very specifically addressed to the prophet’s younger wives and Muslim scholars all over the world acknowledge that these advices, still mildly spoken, are not binding on the general mass of mumina, the believing women. Only one controversial so-called "scholar" from the Indian subcontinent, the infamous father of modern Islamic fundamentalism, Abul Ala Maududi, insists that the advices in surah Ahzab be treated as dicta for all Muslim women. He does not care that the verses in surah Ahzab begin very clearly with the apostrophe: "Ya Nisa un Nabi [O women of the Nabi (Prophet)], you are not like other women". Maududi wrote a series of essays in Urdu on women and purdah and published them in 1939. In a passionate defence of veiling of women, Maududi says: "Though the veil has not been specified in the Koran, it is Koranic in spirit." Really!

Maududi’s haunted house of hijab’s "Koranic spirit" is so spooky that a precondition of entering it is a flat denial of what is actually there in the Koran. Such doublespeak is designed to mislead, to distort reality and to corrupt thought and it is no wonder that Muslim religious scholars of the Indian subcontinent at the time vehemently shunned his brand of Islamism. Commenting on the manipulation of the sacred text, Rafiq Abdullah, a Muslim lawyer in London, notes: "Incapable of envisaging the Koran as a linguistic space which contains a multiplicity of discourses (including the prophetic, legislative, eschatological, narrative, metaphysical, spiritual), Islamists choose to ignore the fact that they are interpreting a mythical past and carrying out a partial, generally decontextualised reading of the words of god."

The loud claims made by Muslim patriarchy and their army of well-mobilised women followers that there is a thing called the "Islamic dress code for women" has very feeble basis in the Koranic text. Religious traditions are vast and in Islam’s case, globally spread out. Traditionally, Islamic legal-moral rules or mores were carefully attuned to the way the Koranic language communicated on the matter at hand. Hermeneutics, or the art of interpretation, requires mastering a variety of skills and knowledge in the fields of history, philosophy, law, dialectics and linguistics besides theology. Trained religious scholars or Arabic jurists would comb the Koran in order to establish a graded scheme of classifying behaviour – wajib (mandatory), mandub (recommended), mubah (permitted), makruh (disapproved), haram (forbidden) and so on.

The fact that Abul Ala Maududi had no formal training as a religious scholar is evidenced by his blithe exclusion of consideration of Koranic texts in his pronouncements on veiling and seclusion of women. Completely insensitive to some of the beautiful sentiments expressed in the Koran about women, Maududi’s writings exhibit brute assertions, borrowing more from the old Judaeo-Christian theologies that brand woman as the original sinner and the cause of the fall of man than from the Islamic principles of gender equality.

The most egregious falsification occurs, ironically, in the case of the most frequently quoted verse from surah Nur by the proponents of hijab: "Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, Guard their private parts, and not display their charms, Except what is apparent outwardly, And cover their bosoms with their veils, And not to show their finery" (24:31).

Mark again the even-toned rhetoric of the language of the advice and the generality of what is being advised. Not counting the fast disappearing tribal groups of Africa, South America and elsewhere where women remain topless, women of all religions all over the world dress by covering their bosoms. "Not to show their finery" is an additional cautionary measure towards checking an individual’s desire to show off superficial adornments to outsiders. But the Koran is not as draconian in its opinion on a woman’s natural desire to adorn herself: as the Muslim fundamentalists interpret this verse. In the rest of the ayat (verses), we get the idea that a sweet, youthful mumina can wear her finery in front of her family members and householders. Just don’t stamp your feet too hard and create a jangle of noise that would make outsiders aware of all the baubles you wear. Pretty fair advice to impetuous youthful females given almost with a touch of grandmotherly affection.

The key to understanding the true import of this verse is the first utterance: "Qul li-muminati yaghdhudhuna min absari hinna (Tell the believing women to lower their eyes)". These words are rhetorically repeated here from the preceding verse 30: "Tell the believing men to lower their eyes..."

Bar none, both sexes are asked to ghadhadha, or cast down the gaze or glance. It is not hard to recognise this gesture, universal and utterly human, as the outwardly visible physical manifestation of a mental activity. Modesty, then, resides in the mind. All other external accoutrements suggested by the Koran are subservient to this inner, mental activity that is further reinforced by the adverbial clause min absari. The verb absar comes from basira, meaning "the ability of having the power of mental perception, discernment, clear thinking", etc. Therefore the clause min absari appended to the "lowering gaze" action should mean that we are asked by the Koran to divert our gaze from what is before our eyes and turn inward to our inner discernment and fine-tune our moral judgements about what is decent and what is not. To construct a stricture of enforced superficial outward garb (the burkha or the hijab) out of this mild language of the Koran is a travesty and an insult to the deep moral and intellectual message of the Koran on developing our inner sense of humility.

As in surah Nur (30 and 31), all the advice on modesty to women can be shown to have counterpart advice to men elsewhere in the Koran. Further illustrating the difference in meaning that the rhetorical thrust of the language in the Koran can make, I would like to cite a verse from surah Luqman that is meant exclusively for men to observe modesty in their conduct and demeanour. The tone of the language here is definitely more strident than the one that addressed women in either surah Nur or surah Ahzab about modest dressing: "Do not hold men in contempt, And do not walk with hauteur on the earth. Verily God does not like the proud and boastful. Be moderate in your bearing, and keep your voice low, Surely the most repulsive voice is that of the donkey" (31:18-19).

Imagine if it were required for all Muslim men to walk around for all their waking hours with a device fitted around their necks to measure the decibel of their voices and setting off an ear-piercing alarm alerting family members, co-workers and neighbours every time their voices reached the level of a braying donkey! How about men wearing a "macho prevention meter" around their waists? Or a shackle around their ankles to curb their "proud and boastful" bearing? The Koranic language is clear and unambiguous about its admonitions. The genuinely pious and spiritually well-formed men of old were mindful of such Koranic moral guidance.

In the guise of leading us back to an imagined and presupposed "purer" Islam, modern fundamentalists like Maududi invent concepts that actually divert unsuspecting believers from the path of true devotion and traditional piety. Even though they appear to renounce the modern world’s secular culture, they inhabit its material and technical realms and exploit them to the hilt. Maududi’s writings are translated into 40 different languages and vigorously disseminated through the Internet. We must grapple with this odd quality of modernity of their movement and not regard them as "old-fashioned" conservatives or simply "backward"-looking in their religious views. They do not blink at the idea of brazenly misinterpreting the holy Koran and manipulating the sacred scripture to fit those ideologically driven concepts about religion. Insisting on hijab as a paradigmatic self-definition of Islam is one such concept. Saying the Koran mandates it is a lie. Saying Allah will punish a Muslim woman who commits the sin of not wearing a hijab is an outrageous lie.

I leave you to ponder the words and their rhetorical thrust in the following verse from surah Hud: "Who is more wicked than the one who fashions lies about God? Such men shall be arraigned before their Lord, And the witnesses [angels] will testify: ‘These are those who imputed lies to God.’ Beware! The scourge of God will fall on the unjust" (11:18).

(Farida Majid is a poet, scholar and literary translator based in New York city. Though this article was first published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, on May 13, 2004, we are reproducing it here in the context of the continuing attempts of Islamic fundamentalists and traditionalists who claim that veiling is an Islamic obligation.)

Courtesy: The Daily Star; www.thedailystar.net


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